Flashback: Beltway Sniper Terrorizes Washington, D.C. - Rolling Stone
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Flashback: Beltway Sniper Terrorizes Washington, D.C.

A look back at the crimes that terrified the country, 15 years later

john allen muhammad dc sniperjohn allen muhammad dc sniper

John Allen Muhammad was put to death for masterminding the D.C. area shootings in 2002.

Steve Helber-Pool/Getty Images

October marks the 15-year anniversary of the “D.C. snipers” shooting spree, an act of mayhem that forced Americans to confront domestic terrorism after 9/11.

Law enforcement at first assumed the shootings were burglaries and unconnected acts of violence. Over nine months, however, investigators pieced together a complicated web of violent acts and discovered an oddball pair of men were the perpetrators: a 17-year-old Jamaican teenager and a former American soldier.

The media anointed Lee Boyd Malvo, the teen, and John Allen Muhammad, 41, his father-figure-cum-svengali, the D.C. snipers – but the two men actually terrorized innocent people across America. From February 2002 until October 2002, a terrifyingly high number of people were shot in ordinary places in a number of states: a Home Depot parking lot in Virginia, liquor stores in Alabama and Georgia, even at the front door of a home in Washington state.

During three tense weeks in October 2002, the D.C. snipers targeted their killing spree on Virginia and – their deadliest period. Before being apprehended, they killed 10 people in the D.C. area and injured three others. Police later connected them for more shootings in other states as well.

But before all that, preparations for their grotesque torrent of violence had begun many years before.

Violence and Retaliation
Born John Williams, John Allen Muhammad took his name after a conversion to Islam in 1987. A 2004 Vanity Fair profile describes a troubled Army combat engineer and metal worker who returned from the Gulf War in 1991 with his demeanor radically changed. One of his two ex-wives, Mildred Muhammad, told The Frederick News-Post that she believed he suffered from untreated post-traumatic stress syndrome after his service in the Middle East. (At the time, this was referred to as Gulf War Syndrome.) The couple had three children but he lost custody in an ugly split, according to the News-Post, and she became his “enemy.”

In an interview with NPR, Mildred Muhammad said police told her she may been her ex-husband’s target as well, possibly as retaliation for their custody battle. “His end-game scenario was to come in as a grieving father,” she told host Michel Martin. Indeed, The Baltimore Sun reported that Mildred’s neighbors confirmed seeing the blue Caprice driven by the shooters multiple times.

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The Vanity Fair profile describes Lee Boyd Malvo, Muhammad’s teenaged accomplice, as a lonely child familiar with abandonment. Born on Jamaica, Malvo was separated from his father at a young age after his parents split and raised by a strict Christian mom. Although a good student, the boy moved frequently, bouncing from school to school. He was often cared for others, including one teacher who considered adopting him. “Most of the children went home on weekends but not Lee,” the former teacher told the magazine. “He had nowhere to go. On the weekends, he was totally alone.”

In late 1999, Malvo’s mother summoned him to the island Antigua. According to Vanity Fair, it was there that he met Muhammad, who was essentially hiding on the island with his three children, over whom he did not have custody. Although the exact circumstances where the pair met are unclear, Muhammad began spending time with Malvo.

After meeting on Antigua, the pair told most people they were father and son. And they were convincing, too: Muhammad’s cousin, Edward Holiday, told The Washington Post they fooled him. “He played the role of son so good,” Holiday said of Malvo. “When you can fool me, and I’m blood, you’re good.”

In January 2001, Malvo, then 15, moved into Muhammad’s home. People who knew Malvo told Vanity Fair that they began to notice him changing. He attended a Christian school but converted to Islam. He began talking knowledgeably about guns. He worked out relentlessly with Muhammad.

But as the police began to grow suspicious, Muhammad left the Caribbean and returned to the U.S. with his childrenm where his wife soon retained her rightful custody. He dropped Malvo in Florida with his mother – and some freshly made fake immigration documents – and headed to Washington state, according to Vanity Fair.

Malvo ran away from home the first time to join Muhammad in Washington state. The pair moved into a shelter and carried on a life, Vanity Fair described, filled with target practices, exercise drills and militant Islamic teachings. Malvo’s mother tracked down her son in the shelter, and reported Muhammad to the local police.

Malvo ran away from home once again to his twisted ‘father figure’ and then the violence began.

The killings begin
On February 16th, 2002, Lee Boyd Malvo murdered his first victim, Keenya Cook, a 21-year-old new mom. That evening in Tacoma, Washington, the clothing store manager was about to give her baby a bath when she heard someone at the front door, according to The Washington Post. It was Malvo, who shot her to death with a .45-caliber pistol. The young woman was the niece of a woman who Muhammad felt had sided with his wife in his custody dispute, according to Vanity Fair. (Experts who examined the boy said this first killing was a “test” by Muhammad to see how far Malvo would go following orders.)

After Cook’s murder, the pair left town. Sometimes they stayed in shelters and sometimes they stayed with members of Muhammad’s family. But mostly it was just the two of them, traveling the country from the Southwest to the Mid-Atlantic, and living as vagrants.

During their murder spree, the pair used a Bushmaster rifle from afar and handguns at close range, according to the Post, and mostly drove a blue Chevrolet Caprice. Sometimes they used the vehicle only as a getaway car, while other times, they shot from the vehicle and sped away. They purposely shot people on or near highways as a tactic to escape authorities.

dc sniper caprice trial

In May, the pair shot and injured a man on golf course in Florida, according to the Post. Later that month, the pair murdered a man in Texas while he did landscaping work. (In 2006, the Associated Press reported that Malvo had confessed to committing Dillon’s murder.)

On August 1st, 2002, the pair shot and robbed a man outside of a mall in Louisiana, according to the Washington Post. And ion September 5th, 2002 they shot a man five times in his car as he left a restaurant in Maryland. After the shooting, the victim told NPR, one of the shooters stole a laptop and a briefcase containing about $3,500.

Many of the murders followed a similar pattern: a victim would be shot with a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle or a handgun leaving their workplace at closing time. Although at times the pair stopped to steal money or equipment, usually the perpetrators drove away. Liquor stores were frequent site for the killings, as were parking lots of big box stores like Sears, Home Depot and Michaels. They were indiscriminate in their murders, killing men and women of all ages and races.

In late September, the pair killed an Ethiopian immigrant outside the liquor outlet in Atlanta where he worked, according to the Los Angeles Times. They shot and injured a man as he locked up his family’s grocery store in Baton Rouge, the Washington Post reported. And they murdered a Korean woman in Baton Rouge as she left the beauty supply store where she worked.

Then they headed north.

The D.C. shooting spree
The shootings in the Washington, D.C., area began in early October and started with James D. Martin, 55. He was shot in the parking lot of a grocery store on October 2nd, 2002. That same day, shots were fired into a Michael’s craft store in Aspen Hill, MD, although no one was injured, according to CNN.

On October 3rd, 2002, the killers took five victims. They murdered James “Sonny” Buchanan, 39, as he mowed the lawn outside a car dealership in Rockville, Maryland, according to Vanity Fair. Premkumar Walekar, 54, a cab driver, was murdered at a gas station, in Aspen Hill, Maryland. Sarah Ramos, 34, a recent immigrant from El Salvador, was murdered while sitting on a in Silver Spring, Maryland, according to the New York Times. Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, was killed at a Shell gas station in Kensington, Maryland. And lastly, Pascal Charlot, 72, was shot while waiting for a bus in D.C.

The next day, the pair shot Caroline Seawell, 43, in the parking lot of a Michael’s craft store in Fredericksburg, VA, as she Halloween decorations into her car. She survived her injuries and later testified against Muhammad at trial, according to CNN.

The snipers wounded their youngest victim, 13-year-old Iran Brown, on October 7th outside his middle school in Maryland. They killed a Vietnam veteran a gas station on Oct. 9 and killed the father of six at another gas station two days later. They murdered Linda Fraklin in a Home Depot parking lot on October 14th – the killing prosecutors later used to pursue a life sentence for Malvo. On October 19th, they shot a man leaving a steakhouse in Virginia. The duo committed their last killing on October 22nd, 2002 when they murdered a man on a bus in Maryland.

dc sniper virginia crime scene

The arrest and Muhammad’s trial
The twisted cat-and-mouse game ended on October 24th when Malvo and Muhammad were arrested at a highway rest stop in VA, where they had been sleeping in their Chevrolet Caprice, according to ABC News.

Malvo was forthcoming with information to law enforcement, and later, the media, after being apprehended. Muhammad was stubbornly tight-lipped to law enforcement all the way until his execution. Muhammad chose to represent himself at trial, pleading not guilty.

As the murders spanned several states, prosecutors chose to focus on the death of Dean H. Meyers, who had been killed pumping gas outside a Virginia gas station, when seeking the death sentence for Muhammad, according to The Washington Post.

A key part of the prosecution’s argument was demonstrating how Muhammad and Malvo’s shootings across the country were a plan to inflict terror and acquire $10 million from the government in order to stop, the New York Times explained. (Psychologists speaking in behalf of Malvo’s trial explained that Muhammad believed the government would give them $10 million dollars to create a “black utopia” in Canada populated by 70 black boys and 70 black girls, according to CNN.)

On November 17th, 2003 Muhammad was convicted of one count of capital murder, committing a murder in an act of terrorism, conspiracy, and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, according to CNN

A trained killer who couldn’t say no
Lee Boyd Malvo was tried on two counts of murder for Franklin, the woman who was shot in the Home Depot parking lot in Virginia. He pleaded not guilty by reasons of insanity, according to CNN, and the defense for Malvo focused on his brainwashing by his so-called ‘father figure’ who trained him in killing.

On December 18th, 2003, Malvo was convicted of capital murder and terrorism. According to NPR, his young age at the time of the killings was a key the reason why the jury rejected a death sentence. In March 2004, Malvo was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

lee boyd malvo dc sniper

During a 10-year anniversary interview with Matt Lauer on Today in 2012, Malvo said he had been sexually abused by the man who trained him to kill.

“From the entire time, from when I was 15 until I got arrested, I was sexually abused by John Muhammad,” he told Lauer. “I felt a sense of shame and I just said, ‘That’s something that I’d never tell anyone.’ And to a certain extent, up until that point, I really couldn’t handle it.”

Malvo further described in his interview with Lauer the extent of the control that Muhammad held on his life. “I couldn’t say no,” he said, according to Today. “I had wanted that level of love and acceptance and consistency for all my life and couldn’t find it. And even if unconsciously, or even in moments of short reflection, I knew that it was wrong, I did not have the willpower to say no.”

In May 2017, a federal judge ruled that Malvo must be re-sentenced, according to the Times. His life sentence was handed down prior to a Supreme Court ruling in 2012 forbidding mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles.

Death sentence for Muhammad
On November 10th, 2009, the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarrett, Virginia, executed John Allen Muhammad by lethal injection. Both then-Governor Tim Kaine and the Supreme Court declined to intervene with last-minute clemency requests, according to CNN.

Family members of of victims attended the execution, according to USA Today, while others declined.

One survivor of shootings, Paul LaRuffia, who refused an invitation to watch Muhammad put to death, told ABC News: “I’ve given every day of the past seven years to thinking about what he did to me. I don’t need to give up another day for him. It’s enough to know justice is being done.”


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